State Senator Rita Sanders, Nebraska’s only sitting legislator of Asian American heritage, graciously made time to discuss LB 442, a new bill that would create a Commission of Asian American Affairs. Nebraska currently has similar commissions in the Nebraska Latino-American Commission, the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, and the newly created Commission on African American Affairs. These groups advocate for the needs of Nebraskans and coordinate with similar groups in other states. This interview has been lightly edited for length.

ACLU of NE: Thank you, Senator Sanders, for spending time with us today to talk about the bill introduced by Senator Matt Hansen that would establish Nebraska’s first Commission on Asian American Affairs. Could you tell us a little about your personal background and what LB 442 means to you?

Senator Sanders: This bill was a surprise for me to see on the agenda and I thought it was great timing to have this.

21.4 million Americans are Asian Americans and it is the fastest growing major ethnic group in America. That’s exciting to me because my grandparents on the paternal side came from the Philippines back in the 1920s when we needed more workers in the sugarcane industry in Hawaii.

My grandparents came from Bohol, Philippines and Cebu City, Philippines to Hawaii and they met there. They sort of stayed within their own Filipino culture while in Hawaii and they got married there and had 12 children. While they were in Hawaii, they raised their children to speak English and did not teach them to speak Tagalog at home. So, I really did not learn about my Filipino heritage until I was an adult living in Bellevue, Nebraska.

When my dad turned 18, he left Hawaii and joined the army, and he was shipped to Germany where he married a German lady - my mother - and brought her back to Hawaii. Growing up I spoke German at home living in Hawaii, but I didn't realize that my parents’ marriage was considered a biracial marriage. When I got older, I started to notice people would bring our family food and oftentimes it was sauerkraut because my mother was German, but it didn’t make sense to me at the time as a young kid.

My dad was very, very dark, and my mom was very, very white and that’s how people would categorize it by different colors of skin, but I really looked at it as different cultures. My mother was a harsh German woman trying to keep up with seven kids and my dad was born and raised in Hawaii with Filipino DNA and was an easygoing kind of Hawaiian guy and that was my cultural base. It wasn't until I got married and moved to Bellevue, Nebraska, got to know the community and ran for mayor that I began to come to know Nebraska’s Filipino community, half of my heritage. 

One of my first responsibilities was to keep and retain businesses in the city of Bellevue and we had at that time Bimbo Bakeries looking at closing. So I went there with incentives and discussions of how do we keep a big bakery like that open in my city and found out about 80% of the workers at the bakery were Filipino. And I'm like, “Where are all these Filipinos coming from?” And they said, “Well back in the 1920’s,” exactly how my grandparents got here! They said they were surprised I noticed because they were used to people putting all the Brown people into one pot. And there definitely has to be education of the diversity of our population in Nebraska.

Violence against Asian Americans is going up and I'm asking the question “why?” and getting answers that it’s because of COVID-19 and the association with China. There's definitely education that has to happen in our country. Our country is constantly evolving, and I think the more we can share information about who people are and their different cultures and backgrounds and how that makes our country better is always better.

ACLU of NE: You discussed room for education. Regarding Asian American communities here, what do you anticipate the impact of this commission could be given the rise in anti-Asian and anti-Asian American hate? What is the opportunity for advocacy and education?

Senator Sanders: I’m always trying to be positive and thinking about what the possible best thing is we can learn from this. I mean, I'm engaged with the Filipino community now and there's actually a really large one here in Nebraska; I discovered that when I was invited to the annual Santo Niño de Cebú festival held at St. Cecilia Cathedral. When I went to the cathedral it was packed, standing room only!

There's a large Filipino population that is working in nursing, the entertainment business, hospitality industry and more. One community member in particular brought me up to speed on the closing of something like 30 nursing homes due to lack of funding and workforce in Nebraska. Looking at the Filipino community and their strong numbers in the healthcare industry I thought this was a workforce solution I could take to the governor’s office to say: “What can we do with this information to help out with the closure of these nursing homes and lack of workforce and bring jobs to this community?”

Two years ago, the Filipino Ambassador invited me to the Philippines and I able to visit parts of the Philippines that my grandparents came from on the paternal side. And over and over I would hear “America is still our first choice to immigrate to, we can help you with your lack of workforce, but the immigration system makes it very difficult.”

As a matter of fact, our daughter married a Filipino man. He is part of the immigration workforce, and their family is split with half the family left in the Philippines and only a few of them were able to get their work visas and they've been here working.

I think we need to pay attention to the fact that our immigration system is denying the opportunity to those who want to come here and work, causing families to split and having them send their hard-earned American dollars back home to the Philippines.

This is a conversation I am having on the national level with the ambassador, which has been very exciting, and there are exciting advocacy opportunities that could really come out of this commission.

Asian Americans are our neighbors, and they are here, working hard, and they have really good food! In my house my husband calls it East meets West because I have my mother's German cuisine knowledge, so there's a meat and potato side to me, and then combine that with Filipino cuisine and it’s really interesting! I think you're seeing more and more of that infusion style cooking and it shows how we, together as a society, can work in tandem and learn and grow with each other in a positive direction.

ACLU of NE: Is there anything you want to add as Nebraska’s currently and only sitting half Asian American senator?

Senator Sanders: Going into politics, I didn't know I would be representing this community of people in Nebraska but now I am their rock star, that's how they refer to me!

I'm excited that I as a female and Asian American can represent them. Hopefully I represent them well and I'm excited there's so much opportunity for advocacy with the establishment of this commission and to learn from our Filipino and Asian American communities and lead Nebraska in a positive and great direction.

Editorial note: This conversation was recorded before the tragedy in Atlanta, which came in the midst of a rapid rise in Anti-Asian violent attacks since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of which have targeted women. To read the ACLU's official statement on the violence, click here. At the ACLU of Nebraska, we will continue to fight for a world where all of our communities can live without fear.